Padraig J Daly’s new collection of poems, God in Winter, is extraordinarily good. It comes with a health warning on the package: this is religious poetry, or poetry of ‘faith’. The warning is obviously intended for people of delicate sensibility, like me, for whom the only useful purpose of a personal God would be to take institutional dogmatic religion of every hue, and with a kick of his almighty boot to send it sailing out of our particular space-time continuum. But even if God were to thus oblige us, and furthermore if he fired an angry envelope through Earth’s letterbox, with his keys inside, and a note: ‘don’t dare try to contact me’, it would not make a whit of difference to poetry such as that of Padraig J Daly. Because poetry, or any kind of art, is not validated by anything outside its own guiding principles and discipline.
The categorising is not only inane and condescending, it is counter-productive. If a reader is searching for a new experience through poetry, why warn him off? Imagine picking up Homer’s Iliad, and being touched on the elbow to alert you that ‘this is full of interventionist-god stuff, but, if you can stomach that, it is really very good’.
What I want, what any reader wants, is to get inside the skin of the writer, to walk in his boots, to see and feel the world as he sees and feels it. Poetry, more than any of the other literary forms, is capable of delivering such an experience. From my reading I want to understand the poet as a man or as a woman, to receive any insights he or she may have into our shared predicament as human beings. If the poet comes from an interesting background, or one that is very different from my own, then all the more welcome is his viewpoint. If he is a coalminer, I am interested in seeing and feeling the world through the perception of one who spends much of his life under the surface of the earth; or if he is an aircraft pilot, I want to experience the world through the eyes of one who sees it mostly from a height of 35,000 feet.
So what can be more interesting for an atheist or a pagan than to see and feel the world from inside the skin of a Roman Catholic priest in the present age!
Daly presents his world and his world view with precision and clarity, diamond clear, but diamond hard as well. There is no sentimentality in his world or in his poetry. His poems are not an apologia for his religious beliefs nor an attempt to propagate them, and they are certainly not aids to piety. Instead he gives us the purest of pure poetry, his personal experiences distilled, his material carefully wrought until it stands apart glittering, its own justification.
His subjects and themes are wonderfully varied. Even if sexual love is absent, as one would expect, the book abounds in human love in all its richness. He celebrates the lives of friends and relatives with a passionate intensity. His over-riding theme is beauty – of life, of the earth, of the universe. And he relates the abundance of love and beauty that he observes to an overseeing personal loving Creator.
In many ways Daly, in this book, is re-asserting the vision of his first volume of poems, Nowhere but in Praise, published forty years ago. There the immanence of a loving God in the world was the central theme. But if Daly has come full circle, he certainly hasn’t ploughed a straight furrow over the years. When the disclosures of crimes committed against children by his colleagues deluged public awareness, Daly, like his decent and dedicated fellow-priests, was pushed to despair. He questions and castigates his God in the collection, The Voice of the Hare, and articulates a feeling of despair and desertion, far more visceral even than that of Hopkins’s Dark Sonnets.
As a storyteller myself, I have always admired Daly’s ability to infuse a single image with narrative potency. I will quote just one poem and it illustrates this. It could be a short story by Hemingway, if Hemingway could be as concise.
It was a place of pigeons fluttering.
A thrush tugged at a worm.
A solitary cloud boded rain.
In the middle of the field
A giant chestnut was white with blossom.
A cyclist pushed against the hill.
Men gathered by the ruined factory
In faded overalls.
Behind a window,
Someone broke eggs into a pan.
Although highly respected among his fellow poets, Daly is not as well known to the general public as he should be. He does not promote himself, does not swagger his importance around town, does not bellow his poems into the ears of the populace. Indeed he has been accused of being ‘humble’. Yes, I imagine that even the concept of ‘promotion’ is anathema to him. However humble he is not. From start to finish his poems exude a pride in craftsmanship, in achievement, in the successful delivery of his experience to the eye or ear of his public. He sets his poems out in book after beautiful book and leaves it to the reader to make what he or she will of them.
I began by talking of the ‘health warning’, and I will end by issuing a ‘health clearance certificate’. I myself have been exposed to Daly’s poetry for the past forty years, and it has not at all affected my absolute disenchantment with and aversion to the Roman Catholic Church. So it is perfectly safe to read this book. I recommend it to anyone who simply loves wonderful poetry.